It’s not easy to create the magical experience found at Disney parks. Here’s a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes—and how one Imagineer found his calling at a young age.
In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with an undercover hotel inspector, a social media influencer, and a professional ghost hunter. Up next: a Disney Imagineer.
Is Disneyland the happiest place on Earth? David Caranci sure thinks so. He has worked for the Walt Disney Company off and on for more than three decades, including 17 years in the decorations department. In his latest role as Manager of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering in Anaheim, California, Caranci spearheads a team of more than 40 Imagineers specializing in special effects, art direction, graphic design, and more. In this capacity, he oversees creative projects at Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure Park, and four Disney resorts (Paradise Pier, Disneyland Hotel, the flagship Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, and Aulani in Kapolei, Hawaii). The big Halloween and Christmas celebrations? Those fall under Caranci’s purview, too. We caught up with the busy Disney devotee to discuss how he went from scooping ice cream as a 17-year-old park employee to leading some of the most imaginative minds in the travel industry.
What is your earliest Disney memory?
“[Growing up in California], my family went to Disneyland every single year. When I was in fifth grade, I learned about Imagineering and wrote in to WED Enterprises, which was Disney’s Imagineering department. I said, ‘Hey, I want to be an Imagineer when I grow up! How do I do this?’ And I got an amazing five-page handwritten letter back from an Imagineer telling me exactly how Imagineering works. At the time, I wanted to work on Pirates of the Caribbean. He explained that it’s not just one person doing everything, but different people doing the animation or the figure finishing or the hair and the eyes and the costumes. It took many Imagineers to bring Pirates of the Caribbean to life. My background is in prop and set design, and I started building props at home at a very young age. This included model-scale parts of the Disney parks.”
You built these just for fun?
“Just for fun. And I continued to do that all the way up through high school. That’s actually how I landed one of my first jobs with Disney—it was because of the models I’d built.”
You were a cast member from 1985 to 1991. What was your job?
“When I was first hired into Disneyland, my senior year of high school, I was offered three positions: one with entertainment, like being one of the characters that walks around the park; one with food; and one with attractions. I chose food because they were going to pay me 10 cents more an hour and I would have benefits. I worked at Carnation Plaza Gardens, which used to be on the left side of the Disneyland castle. That’s where Walt and [his wife] Lillian used to swing dance to big bands in the summer.”
What were you doing in the food department?
“I was scooping up ice cream cones and serving hamburgers and french fries. After a few years, I worked my way up to being behind-the-scenes in the kitchen, which paid a little more money. Then I became a dinner cook foreman at Big Thunder Ranch restaurant. That was in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
What came next?
“From 1991 to 1997, I worked in the decorating department at Disneyland. Three different times we had to reduce staffing, so I’d go away for awhile and then be hired back in. In my time away, I worked as a prop builder for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and another TV show called VR Troopers.”
How did you get into props and decorating if you were working in food?
“Well, I knew I didn’t want to stay in food forever. I still had those models I had built in school, so I actually went to a guidance counselor at Disney University, brought in some of my models, and said I had a desire to do props and sets. The counselor connected me with Clare Graham, who was in the entertainment division and gave me a shot. I worked with Clare for about nine months, then went back to food.”
Would you consider that your first big career break?
“Clare Graham was an amazing artist and a great leader. It was my first big break into anything creative for Disney. But after nine months, they said to me, basically, that I didn’t have the skills and ability and quality they were looking for in this role. I was really disappointed. So I went back to food, figuring I’m not going to make it as a creative person in the Disney family. But what they were really saying was that I needed to get more education in the art that I wanted to do and refine my sculpting, painting, and drawing. And that’s what I did. I spent time building up those skills.”
How did you draw that conclusion? Did somebody pull you aside and say, “Look, if you want to make it as an Imagineer, this is what you need to do”?
“Not really. [The pivotal moment] was Steven Davison, vice president of creative, and my foreman at the time, and Star Tours. Steve got a call saying George Lucas, C-3PO, and others were going to make an appearance for the opening of the ride, but they wanted to drive down the Disneyland parade route in some kind of a Space Age vehicle. Steve only had 24 hours to pull something together and I was his gofer. He went out and grabbed one of our club cars, a little golf cart, and just started reworking it using Gator Board, foam board, big Lego blocks, all these things! And he built this amazing Space Age–looking vehicle that had George Lucas, [former Disney CEO] Michael Eisner, and C-3PO riding down the parade route on opening day. I realized at that point that I did not have the skills or the ability to know how to do that; I would have been completely lost. I could see where I was lacking and the areas I needed to build up.”
How did you learn those skills?
“Through community theater, dinner theater, and low-budget television shows. I didn’t have thousands and thousands of dollars to make things; I might have had $500. So I had to get really creative. I also read a lot of books on theatrical props and how to build something out of nothing. I still do it today. I have a whole line of steampunk artwork that I build in my spare time; it’s not unheard of for me to go through trash cans if I see an interesting shape I think I can turn into something. [Laughs] I actually just built a flux capacitor from Back to the Future. It’s a full-scale replica, completely made out of cardboard, Legos, and objects I found in my garage. The whole thing cost me about $20 to make. It’s all for fun. It keeps me fresh.”
So you started in the Disney decorating department in 1991. Do you remember your first assignment?
“I was part of a team of, gosh, 45 or 50 people who were designing, installing, and building Christmas decor. It takes an army. I was working on the interior decor for Emporium [a Disney gift shop]. When I later moved into the prop department, I had specific attractions I was responsible for, like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and the Primeval World diorama. I would visit those attractions in the early morning and do a visual inspection, just like you would do before a theater production. My job as a prop and set decorator would be to repair, replace, or remove anything that would distract from the show.”
If you saw something awry, was it a mad rush to fix it before the park gates swung open?
“Most of the time a prop or a set piece won’t shut an attraction down. But we might take things out, do some bench work, and then reinstall them the next day. Prop and set decor gives the story breadth. You could have a set that looks like an apartment, but until you start putting in clothes and books and hanging pictures on the wall, it’s just a set of an apartment. Props and decor breathe life into a set and tell the story of who lives there and what they’re all about.”
Growing up, were there certain films or TV shows that you loved watching for the props and set decor?
“[Laughs] I’m gonna date myself, but I loved shows like H.R. Pufnstuf, Land of the Lost, and Lidsville, because they were so theatrical. What’s really cool now is that I get to work with an art director over at California Adventure who was an art director on those TV shows.”
What are some tricks of the trade you learned as a prop designer?
“First and foremost, there are two types of props: hero props and filler props. Hero props are close to our guests, so they have to look real. If you’re in the Treasure Room in Pirates of the Caribbean and you have treasure right up in front of you, that needs to look real. Filler props, meanwhile, are things that fill in a set. This is not where you’re going to spend most of your time and money. Going back to the television shows, I remember building a set that was an interior of an evil villain’s lair and it needed to look very industrial. We were running out of money and time, so we went to the store and bought large dog biscuits, broke them up, re-glued them on the wall in a different shape, and painted them silver and black. Suddenly these dog biscuits became filler—texture on the wall—and nobody knew they were dog biscuits.”
Do the hero props and sets have to be built to withstand mauling by children?
“Disney is a holistic experience where you use all of your senses. Our guests want to be a part of it—to touch it and feel it. And I’m talking about adults, too, not just children. That’s what really brings a story to life. So in construction of props and sets, we look at the functionality of it. If it is something guests would engage in action, it needs to be built to withstand the test of time. If it’s going into one of our attractions but nobody will ever touch it, we would look to create it in a very efficient and affordable way.”
And that’s essentially what Imagineering is: this combination of imagination plus engineering. Can give me an example of a fantastical idea that popped into your head once and how you brought that idea to life?
“I was fortunate enough to be the producer on Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, which was a real treat because I started working at the park on the 30th anniversary. But again, no man’s an island. This takes a lot of people. When the Imagineers started looking at Walt’s original castle, and how we were going to celebrate the castle in a way that pays homage to Walt, we came up with this idea of ‘diamond-izing’ it. We wanted to bejewel the castle in a way that wasn’t gaudy and maintained its original integrity.”
What was the diamond-izing process like?
“It started with sketches and ideating; what could the castle look like? We went through 30 or 40 high-level designs. Once the designs were complete, we brought in model makers to build a full-scale model. And from that model, we were able to pitch and sell the idea to our executive team. From there, we engaged with contractors and vendors who specialize in working with jewels and things that look like diamonds—spires, for instance, that appear to be elongated, inverted diamonds. Engineering, design, working with the city—all of that stuff has to happen as well. Then we go into complete build-out, which takes six to eight months, and then we install. Close to 40 people worked on the installation.”
Wow. How do you transform something as iconic as the Disneyland castle without distracting park visitors in the interim?
“That’s the real trick. We have amazing people from Entertainment and Tech Services and Imagineering and Operations—this is what they do day in and day out. They know how to move things in and out of the park in a way that won’t affect the guest experience or distract from the show. As we transform the castle, we have to make sure that people can still take photos of it without it looking funny or different. Most of the work is done at night, when the park is closed, but even then, Disney Imagineers are extremely respectful of the night crews working. The custodial and maintenance teams work overnight, and now we’re in their territory.”
It’s an interesting challenge because people travel to Disneyland from all over the world. The last thing they want to see is scaffolding around the castle.
“If we have to put construction fences or scrim up, we ask how can we do it in a way that’ll look Disney-quality, but also add to the show. In the case of the castle, we knew we needed to scrim it under a very large tarp for about a month. Kim Irvine, the art director for Disneyland, came up with the idea of taking the original Herbert Ryman painting Walt used to bring out to show people what the Disney castle looked like, and printing it in almost full-scale on a scrim. So even though people couldn’t take a picture with the castle, they could take a picture with this incredible piece of artwork. It paid homage to Herbie as well as Walt, but it also became something people could only see once. It’ll never look that way again.”
What have you learned over the years about managing creative personalities?
“As a manager, I don’t have to be an expert in everything. What I need to do is surround myself with people who are experts and give them the ability to do what they need to do without being hindered. And when that happens, truly amazing things start to come together—especially in Imagineering. We like to say, ‘If we can dream it, we can do it.’ The tough part is managing budgets and timelines and schedules and deliverables. Sometimes in the creative world, that’s the piece that gets away from you.”
The holidays must be your busiest time of year. What are you working on now?
“Halloween [at Disneyland California Adventure Park] was a very fast-paced project; we had only nine months to build and install, but it beat all of our expectations. Christmas is, for most of our guests, a holiday tradition. They want a photo with their family in front of the Main Street Christmas tree, or they want to watch the fireworks show at night. This is what they do to celebrate. Disneyland Park will always be a traditional holiday experience, but at California Adventure, we try to start new traditions. With the Disney Festival of Holidays, we celebrate not just Christmas but also Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. We recently introduced a Coco-inspired menu at the Paradise Garden Grill and brought in cultural assistance to make sure we celebrated Dia de los Muertos in a respectful and authentic way. Disney California Adventure is amazing because it is a representation of [the diversity of] California itself.”
The holiday windows on Main Street USA are such classics. How do you rethink those each year while still preserving tradition?
“Disneyland is not a museum. Main Street is a small American township with living, breathing mayors and residents and proprietors. So each year, we look at how we can keep the Main Street decor traditional, because that’s what our guests have come to expect, but also ask, ‘Who are our proprietors and what would they do?’ If they’re living above the shops on the second and third floors, would they decorate their windows? Would they put Christmas cards or a menorah out? Main Street has changed many, many times over the years, but they’re little nods that make sense within the larger story.”
When it comes to Imagineering jobs, are most of the jobs you hire for these days computer-driven?
“I was a senior manager of the Disneyland decorating department from 1997 to 2014 and one of the things I saw [in hiring] is that we’re starting to lose touch with hand-to-paper design. Everything is computer-based and everyone who comes in for an interview does amazing computer work. But if you look at our original Imagineers, back in Walt’s time, everything was done by hand. We’re losing that skill now because so much is driven by technology. Our art directors really look for [job candidates] who balance both.”
What advice do you have for all the model-building fifth graders out there interested in becoming Imagineers?
“It’s OK to slow down! It’s OK to listen and learn. We work in a world now where everything is quick gratification; people believe they should have that senior management or executive job within the first year. Take your time and learn from the people who are already there.”